The Perfect Renaissance Man


Hebah: You might that know our name – Kerning Cultures – comes from a phrase in type design. Kerning, by definition, is adjusting the space between letters, to make a word easier to read. Our name is a metaphorical thing – we like to think of our stories as the spaces in between cultures. But today, we have a story, that is, literally, about kerning. About type design. And it’s the kind of story that, we hope, will change the way you think about the words you type, when you’re texting, when you’re emailing, or when you’re trying to find that perfect caption for a social post.

I’m Hebah Fisher, and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures - radio documentaries from the Middle East.

Jahd: Okay, I’m gonna start from the top here.

Hebah: Today’s story comes to us from a new contributor, Jahd Khalil.

Jahd: You know that thing, where somebody tells you not to think about an elephant, so you think about an elephant? It's kind of the same thing with reading a word. It's pretty much impossible to look at a word you know and not read it. We read thousands of words every day, much of it without actually trying to read them.

There are the billboards and storefronts we read when we drive by without thinking. We read novels and books with purpose. And then there’s the words on screens that hold our attention for hours a day. Most of us don’t really think about how those words came to us, how they were designed, or who designed them. They just exist, and we read them.

But, Nasri Khattar obsessed over words.

Camille: Oh absolutely! His favorite thing was to read the dictionary, believe it or not.

Jahd: That’s Nasri Khattar’s daughter, Camille Khattar.

Camille: He had a dictionary next to his bed and he would look up words and try to remember them and use them.

Jahd: He was a Lebanese-American architect, and he had this subtle but big idea to change the way we read Arabic. It became his lifelong obsession. This is him giving a lecture at the American University of Beirut in 1995.

Nasri (Archive): Now, remember the accusation is that I was interfering, ruining Arab culture, which is the exact opposite of what I was doing.

Jahd: It was a presentation to staff and students, right at the end of his life – a life that he’d spent tirelessly campaigning for his Arabic writing system to be recognised.

Nasri (Archive): We invited some Lebanese ministers to come and listen to me. I knew they wouldn’t come. For 47 years I’ve been trying to get them to listen. They don’t wanna listen. You know, Jesus called the people who didn’t listen to him, he called them pigs or swine. I don’t forget anybody. But I don’t forgive them. I don’t forgive them. Maybe history will forgive them but I doubt it.

Jahd: So this is how Nasri Khattar ended up; tired, defeated, maybe a little bitter. But to understand this, we have to go back to the beginning. So we’re going to start in 1911, when Khattar was born.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Arab authors had a problem. They wanted to print books to read. But printing in Arabic was easier said than done.

Let me explain. In English, each letter is separate from the next letter. That makes it easy to build a typewriter. Separate keys can print words that are easy to read in English, and the 26 letters easily translate to 26 keys on a typewriter.

In Arabic, letters are connected together – it's like writing with cursive in English. But in Arabic, there are literally hundreds of ways to connect the letters. Their shapes change depending on where they are in the word – at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. There’s 1400 possible shapes for Arabic letters. So any printing press would have needed hundreds of blocks for each shape. Imagine how much space you’d need for every letter. Imagine how expensive it must have been.

Arabs weren’t the only ones that had this issue. In India, individual publishers changed the way their script looked until eventually a consensus was formed. In China, they simplified their script from the top-down. But in the Arab world, the Egyptians held a contest.

Yara: The Academy of Arabic language in Cairo launched a competition calling for the reform of Arabic script.

Jahd: This is Yara Khoury, an Arabic typography researcher at The American University of Beirut.

Yara: 184 proposals came in. And you can categorize these proposers into four categories. The first category was Latinization, which was greatly opposed.

Jahd: Latinization. Writing Arabic using the Latin alphabet. So Baa becomes B, Taa becomes T, siin becomes S, and so on. But in the 1900s, because of the close bond between Arab identity and the Arabic script, this wasn’t a popular idea.

Yara: The second one is original letter design. So some of the proposals completely designed new letters. Very awkward looking letters and and that required de-learning.

Jahd: Asking people to learn a whole new alphabet? Again, not ideal. And the third proposal was this complicated suggestion having to do with short vowels and grammatical cases in Arabic – but instead of solving the problem, this would’ve just added more shapes to the alphabet.

Yara: The fourth one is the one of interest to us here – the reduction of letters. And this is where the Nasri Khattar story of Unified Arabic.

Jahd: And what is that story?

Yara: That story. Um... okay. His big eureka moment was in 1932 at this university, at AUB.

Jahd: That’s the American University of Beirut. Khattar was just 21 at the time.

Yara: he filled in for a sick teacher of Arabic typewriter – typing skills. In an effort to introduce the class and welcome the class. He typed "ahlan w sahlan".

Jahd: That means welcome, in Arabic.

Yara: There are two hehs in ahlan w sahlan. By mistake, he typed an initial heh in ahlan … and then he typed the same heh that should have been a medial heh in sahlan.

Jahd: So, basically he typed the wrong shape for the letter heh. It was as if he wrote a capital letter in the middle of a word in English, except it looks much worse. But then he took a step back, and studied the word, and had an idea.

Yara: I think then and there ... he experienced that moment when he decided that, well it is very legible. Why do we need to change the letter form shape when it's completely legible? And, after that, this is his life story.

Jahd: He set about this plan to simplify the Arabic alphabet. His goal was to bring those 1400 letter shapes down to 30. 30 disconnected letter forms that were still legible, and could be easily laid out on a typewriter. He called it Unified Arabic.

Yara: So that's how it started. I think Khattar saw the hurdles. And he was very much aware of them. But he also saw the potential. But he was a dreamer, and he was perseverer, and that required a lot of patience. He knew he had a mountain to climb and it wasn't a hill. I think that Khattar believed that if the Arab world had adopted Unified Arabic it would have played a very big part in decreasing the illiteracy rates.

Jahd: So that was another one of his goals; that his font would make it simpler and cheaper to print things, and that that would make reading accessible to more people. And for first-time Arabic learners they would only have to learn 30 letter shapes instead of hundreds.

Yara: I think he understood mainly the the link between language – which is disseminated with type – and power.

Jahd: Khattar was aware of the implications of his project. But, first he had to deal with the technology of the time.

Yara: He wanted to find a simple solution for typing Arabic on the typewriter of the 1930s. So, to do that  his first step was that Khattar needed somewhere to test his Unified Arabic on the typewriter and the logical solution was IBM, who were producing the typewriters at the time.

Jahd: Khattar started working for IBM as a consultant, and then the head of the company became personally interested in Unified Arabic. Having IBM behind Khattar was a big deal. They were basically the Google or the Apple of the 1940s. It was a good look for them too, and if it were successful, they could expand into the Arab World and make a lot of money. And Khattar, he need their help and resources to build the actual machines that could print Unified Arabic. So it was a win-win. At the time, Khattar had moved to New York with his wife and family, But being based in the US raised some eyebrows in the Arab World.

Yara: The public in general was very suspicious of Khattar's invention. First he came from the USA, a Western colonizing power somehow, whether it was physically colonizing or technologically colonizing.

Jahd: Having a huge company behind him wasn’t enough. He needed governments, too. IBM tried to help him woo governments. They hosted a fancy gala at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. They sent him to Cairo to the court of the Egyptian King. At some point he did convince the newspaper Al-Ahram to print a test run of the newspaper using his font, but that’s the furthest he got with Egypt. He needed to be in New York to develop the technology that could deliver Unified Arabic. In the meantime, he would have to travel back and forth.

Camille: He worked around the clock. He never stopped. I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as my Dad.

Jahd: At home, his daughter Camille says he was a family man. Throughout all of this, he worked as an architect to provide for his family.

Camille: He was an extremely good provider. He would do all the shopping and he would cook our dinners. My mom wasn’t a great cook. Or, let's just say that they were a very good team. She would cut everything up and prepare everything and then he'd put it all together so he'd say, you know, "baby I need the mushrooms now" or "baby could you give me the onions now?"

Jahd: Once Khattar had figured out the technology piece with partners like IBM, he knew the next step was to be in the Middle East to persuade the right players that Unified Arabic was the best way to be printing. So eventually, he relocated with his family to Beirut. Meanwhile he worked full time as an architect and after work refined his font by studying calligraphy.

Camille: When he would work he would show me a new letter, and he would project it onto the wall and asked me what I thought of it. And of course I thought it was great!

Jahd: And, remember, these 30 letters, when you strung words together, were still completely disconnected. So Khattar thought the more beautiful the letters were, the more acceptable they would be to governments and readers. Because of how many variants it has in handwritten Arabic, he struggled to find the right shape for one letter in particular.

Yara: There's a video recording, if you want to be romantic about this, of Nasri Khattar giving one of his final lectures at AUB, and he's holding endearingly to his meem letter.

Nasri (Archive): The meme here – I made for this letter, I doubt if you believe me because you think I am exaggerating. Nearly a thousand sketches before I arrived to this!

Camille: He loved his meme. He he just loved it. He thought it was the best letter that he had ever designed. Well, he loved everything he did, and his letters were just – all those letters are just so beautiful to look at. They look like drawings, they look – they're just, there's just so much prettier or more beautiful than any other type I've seen in Arabic. Of course I’m biased, but I just love looking at them. I roll them out sometimes and take a look at them and, I have all the originals here, I didn’t give them away.

Jahd: There were a lot of setbacks for Khattar, but he kept on adjusting and creating marketing materials. There was a book that demonstrated how easy it was for children to read his letters. There was a game like scrabble. Test runs of newspapers. Signs on movie theaters. But every time, his response to a new setback was to make something new.

Camille: Initially he would he would react very well by creating something new that would surpass you know what had already been done, but obviously as time went on it just it just got harder, right? There were there things just were not happening.

Jahd: Camille watched her father dedicate his entire life’s work  to making it easy to print and read in Arabic, to this idea, even though nobody was embracing it – not the governments, not typewriter companies, and not the public. But probably the closest he got to having a government implement Unified Arabic was in Tunisia.

Camille: One day we're sitting at home in Beirut where we lived and there was a knock on the door and it was a telegram it was from, It was from President Bourguiba. And he was just amazed, he was just looking at the this telegram and he said, Bourguiba wrote to me and he wants me to come to Tunisia. So Bourguiba told him that when he if he could you know get in Tunisia that he would definitely roll out that his fonts.

Jahd: Khattar had realized that Unified Arabic’s best hope of success was mandatory adoption by a government.

Yara: I think with time the only way he realized to get it into mainstream was up-down, by contacting government officials and high-ranking officials. And in my research I found out that he had made booklets for Bourguiba of Tunis, Hafez Al Assad of Syria, Abdel Nasser of Egypt, talking to them and trying to present his idea.

Jahd: But he came back empty handed - Bourguiba didn’t meet with him and Khattar couldn’t sell other Tunisians on Unified Arabic. By the 1980s, electronic equipment was on the rise. Khattar did his best to adapt Unified Arabic to these technologies, like dot matrix typing, transfer type and other stuff you probably haven’t heard of if you’re under 40. Meanwhile, he still worked on his architectural practice to earn a living, but sometimes was cheated out of his work.

But of all the setbacks Khattar had overcome, the biggest hurdle yet was just around the corner. Khattar’s type was built for a specific time, and specific technology. So when computers came around, they could write Arabic script in a way that was totally impossible in the age of the typewriter. Camille remembers paying a visit to a software company in the UK to see if they’d be interested in using Unified Arabic.  

Camille: And he said you know we don't need – we don't need Unified forms because we have this software that does it automatically. So I went back and I told my Dad, and he just you know he just looked crestfallen and he was tired and he'd been fighting for years, maybe 60 odd years. And he never really gave up. But it just it just became so so difficult for him. And I think he was quite depressed at the end of his life. And it's very sad to think that he was depressed and unhappy because he wasn't able to see the fruits of all his labor.

Jahd: Khattar’s Unified Arabic Fonts were built for a specific time, and specific technology. So when computers started writing the Arabic script - there was no longer a need for the kind of thing Khattar had dedicated his entire life’s work to. But he promoted Unified Arabic until the end. By the time he was 83, he was still pushing for it. Which brings us back to that lecture at AUB, in 1995.

Nasri (Archive): If you lose your language, you lose your nationhood, you lose your culture, you become just somebody belonging to the Western world.

Jahd: In this lecture you can really hear him reflect on his accomplishments and achievements. But you can also hear how despondent and angry he became.

Nasri (Archive): There is nobody to go to here! For 40 years I’ve been trying to get them to listen! For 40 years for god’s sake, for 40 years, let this penetrate this audience. I can’t do it, that’s why I’m giving this lecture, and these people don’t want to come and listen! I don’t believe, for a minute, that this will die with my death because it's so logical, it is irreversible! This is the last thing I have. This is my last testament, please read it somebody. Can you read it?

Camille: I think he – he just gave up. He broke his ribs. He had osteoporosis. So he would step out of bed and his bones would break; they were very brittle. So he contracted pneumonia in the hospital and then he couldn't breathe.

Jahd: Nasri Khattar died on August 1st, 1998, from pneumonia. He died without ever realising his ambition, to make it easier to read Arabic in the modern world.

Jahd: Did his work end up influencing the way that we read Arabic today or the way that Arabic type is designed today?

Yara: I’m not so sure. I'm not sure it influenced type designers per se, but I am sure it can influence learning Arabic a lot.

Jahd: And, this is something Yara saw first hand.

Yara: My daughter was I think 6. And I showed her a booklet he had designed called Shouf Baba Shouf. She was actually starting to learn the Arabic letters, and it’s very hard to get the Arab youth to read Arabic, they are almost very resistant to it. I couldn't believe that she wanted to read on. She caught on so quickly. She was actually flipping the page to continue reading.

Jahd: Type designers and graphic designers I talk to about Khattar as so fascinated by him. They know his work is important but they’re trying to figure out how to use it. Researchers like Yara also wonder what would have happened if Khattar’s Fonts did make it in this world - not only for making it easier to teach Arabic, but also, perhaps, influencing how easily present day softwares could display Arabic.

Yara: The Western world keeps on showering us with technologies, technological devices. Let's consider the iWatch, okay – the iWatch doesn't read Arabic at this stage – it's very hard to read it.  So why are we still there, where we haven't adopted or adapted some of the letters so that they can be legible at very small sizes on a very small screen in our wrist, for example?

Jahd: You’re probably listening to this story on your phone, and maybe afterwards you’ll use it to message a friend, or write a comment on Instagram. All the letters you’ll type with – they were designed by someone, someone like Khattar, who would have put years and possibly decades into their work. Some ideas work, and they stick. Others don’t. In Khattar’s case it didn’t, no matter how badly as he wanted it to.

This is the announcer at AUB that day, reading Nasri Khattar’s last testament, as he called it, at his request, to the audience.

Maybe the world would’ve been different if Khattar had found the success he wanted, maybe children would’ve grown up learning Arabic from his version of Shouf Baba Shouf. But it didn’t happen like that. and so Nasri Khattar’s grand plan all but died when he did. Aside from the few designers and academics who study it today, Unified Arabic has become a relic for a time when things very nearly changed, but didn’t.

Khattar (Archive): Thank you very much, I think this needs a seminar, not a lecture or a presentation.

I apologise for the length of time, I hope you were with me.

Hebah: This episode was produced by Jahd Khalil with editorial support from Alex Atack, Dana Ballout, Bella Ibrahim, and me, Hebah Fisher. Sound design by Alex Atack and Mohamed Khreizat. And thank you to Krystina Martinez for helping us record Camille’s interview. Dana Ballout is also our editor, and Bella Ibrahim takes care of our marketing.

Camille Khattar today is still advocating for her father’s fonts, with the help of some other type designers. You can download Unified Arabic Fonts online, and we’ll link to them from our website.

Yara Khoury wrote a book about Nasri’s life, called “Nasri Khattar, a Modernist Typotect” We’ll link to it, along with some photos of Nasri and his Unified Arabic font. And, seriously, you must go look at all of this -- I know you’re probably imagining what 30 disconnected Arabic letters could look like, but it honestly surprised our entire team to actually see what that meant in real life. That’s all in a link in this episode’s description.

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Thanks for listening, until next time.


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